NOT MANY VEHICLES HAVE EARNED THE RIGHT TO BE CALLED WOODIE
In the history of automotive design, aside from perhaps the hood ornament and tailfins, very few exterior adornments have captivated car buffs quite like woodgrain. When utilized correctly, wood (or any facsimile of wood) has provided an added element of earthiness to the machines we love.
While wood was a primary material used for early automobiles (remember, most carmakers started by making horse carriages), the use of the material for the exterior body faded because steel was more readily available and easier to manipulate and mold than wood.
In the 1930s, automakers hit their stride meshing wood and steel to create some of the most beautiful and iconic vehicles ever to hit the road. Incorporating even more wood into the exterior (and interior) design became even more prevalent during WWII when steel was at a premium for military use.
Eventually, the high cost of creating wooden bodies and maintaining the pristine look never became advantageous for designers, manufacturers or buyers. Factories feared the elements, such as termites, fire and dry rot, would leave the wood less than desirable, if not constantly combated with treatment (bug spray, fire retardant and a good lacquering). Maintaining real wood – and repairing it after an accident – put a lot on the owner. And that amount of responsibility likely meant the end of the popularity of the Woodie.
According to allpar.com, “In 1941, Chrysler came out with the first steel-roof Woodie wagon, called the Town & Country.” In 1947, however, Chrysler stopped using real mahogany for the inner panels of the doors but they kept using ash wood on the outside panels and body framing.
Over the years, Woodie vehicles have continued to intrigue car collectors – and some car buyers. All the while, manufacturers have found alternatives to actual wood siding in the form of vinyl applique or stained metal. Ensuring the “Woodie” has never quite gone away.
After near demise in the 1940s, the 1950s saw a slight resurgence in the use of wood as an accent. Some car manufacturers even discovered that wood siding on an automobile emitted unique color opulence that new luxury car buyers appreciated. The California beach blanket surfin’ safari culture that grew in the ’50s (and well into the ’60s) created a newer, younger audience for woodgrain siding on the automobile.
The most iconic of the woodgrained vehicular phenomenons may be the Jeep® Grand Wagoneer. In the 1960s through 1991 (the last year it was built), Wagoneer offered woodgrain as an option on most of their models. The wood, however, was plastic – a vinyl applique – the most iconic of which was Marine teakwood-grain with simulated white ash molding. The vehicle didn’t just spark the SUV craze, it brought new interest to woodgrain.
The 1970s saw a resurgence of the family station wagon and a sudden appreciation for wood accents.
The Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep Brands have used wood paneling sparingly throughout the ages. But, every once in a while, woodgrain makes an appearance on a model. The most recent example was the 2002-2004 PT Cruiser that had simulated wood panels down the side and around the rear hatch.
Then, in 2003, Dodge created quite a buzz at the auto shows with their Kahuna concept. It had a canvas top, it seated six and it captured the attention of the press, as it was a tribute to the Woodies of years past. The vehicle was never built for the public, but the interest in its wooden exterior had show-goers giddy.
That’s the beauty of woodgrain paneling on the automobile. Nothing conjured up scenes of surfing the Hawaiian Islands quite like a little woodgrain on your car. And while it’s difficult to cite any examples in the current market, few automobile brands have embraced wood paneling or cladding over the years quite like FCA US LLC. Perhaps, someday, woodgrain cladding will, once again, become a common styling option on the vehicles we love. Until that day, we’ll just have to settle for good, old-fashioned sheet metal.